One of the persistent myths of automotive history is that the first-generation 5 Alpine was Renault’s first mainstream turbocharged production model. In reality, that honour goes to the 18 Turbo, which debuted 40 years ago at the Paris motor show.
In 1981 it was the cheapest and best-selling car with such an engine in the UK but this 1982-vintage survivor owned by Chris Pollin is one of only four on the road in the UK.
The 18 made its bow in March 1978 as the eventual heir to the long-established 12 and employed much the same underpinnings. Unlike its predecessor, the bodywork was almost deliberately low-key, reflecting the slogan “Renault 18: Meeting International Requirements”.
By 1980 it occupied Britain’s ‘Top Ten’ list and often appealed to drivers who craved a vehicle as reassuring as a branch of Marks and Spencer. By contrast, the Turbo revelled in its alloy wheels and mildly flamboyant appearance. Power for the new flagship 18 came from the 1,565cc engine used in the 16TS with the addition of a Garrett turbocharger and a Solex carburettor; Renault decided against fuel-injection on the grounds of cost.
The flagship 18 also sported front and rear anti-roll bars, spoilers fore and aft, modified brakes and suspension, while the instruments now included gauges for oil temperature and, of course, turbo boost. British imports commenced in 1981, and at £6,539 the Renault was more than £1,000 cheaper than a two-door Saab 99 Turbo.
The top speed was 112mph, which was on a par with a BMW 320 of the time, and the specification included powered steering, a five-speed manual gearbox, electric front windows and central locking.
By 1984 the Turbo Mk2 featured “deep pile carpeting” and a “leather-bound, adjustable, sports steering wheel”. In other words, this was thoroughly civilised transport and definitely a cut above your average Ford Sierra or Vauxhall Cavalier.
On the road, Pollin finds there is “lots of lag, nice turbo whistle and then time to change”, which reflects road tests of the time. Motor Sport thought that for all its decorations, the 18 was “not a fiery road eater — it is a family saloon whose economy to performance ratio is truly outstanding”.
Similarly, Autocar complained of the “very ’peaky’ nature” of the engine’s response but concluded, “as a fast family saloon, it has a lot to offer”.
The 21, itself an almost forgotten sight, replaced the 18 in 1986 and they soon became an early 1980s memory alongside records by Adam and The Ants.
Pollin came by his example one Saturday morning in 2013. “I was browsing eBay, as you do while eating a bacon roll, typed in ‘Turbo Renault’ and up popped a shiny black 18 Turbo. The car was a mere 350 miles from my home, so after some negotiations with my wife, off we went”.
When Pollin attends classic shows, he often hears the erroneous remark “That’s the same engine as the 5 GT Turbo” – which also is to underestimate significantly the 18. In 1981 Car magazine observed that with its latest model Renault made “a much bolder statement about the turbo’s future than any previous manufacturer”.
And as for those elaborate decals, Pollin merely remarks: “I’m a fan of anything Eighties which originally had ‘Turbo’ graphics on it.”